Tough Young Teachers, episode three: Raising attainment through pheasant shooting
Is it better to be feared or loved? Machiavelli's binary riddle is asked by every new teacher looking for ways to bend kids into shape. Too much of the former and they hate you and your classes and the classroom will seethe with rebellion the moment they dare; dwell in the latter and they'll call you safe while harrowing you on Facebook pages dedicated to your indignity.
In Marvellous Meryl's English class, someone cried "Havoc!", and let slip the dogs of war. As usual, she was being observed, apparently constantly, in a manner described as supportive (reminding me how CIA operatives in Nicaragua described themselves as advisers). And, as usual, her bottom-set Year 10 class were re-enacting Apocalypse Now: chairs brandished, paper thrown, instructions crushed by the wheels of their indifference. And, in an act of sedition so ghastly I nearly dove into my telly to brain the little beggar, a boy spun in her teacher chair, happy as a clam. And in the middle of the pandemonium, her course tutor Rachel sat, pretending she was invisible but failing, Quantum Uncertainty in the classroom.
After being observed by the head, her tutor, the assistant head (and for all I know, Caleb), Meryl was bruised, but still chipper. I don't know what the support was like in this school, but I do know that when this many senior staff start watching lessons so frequently, it's usually to build up a portfolio of evidence to justify handing someone their jotters. Call me crazy, but I suspect most new teachers, tough or otherwise, would prefer that level of support and firepower to take the form of removals and bollockings than the cool, useless panopticon eye of someone who watches but does nothing. What do children think when senior staff sit in, but do nothing about mucking about? A strange way to train, and a strange way to support.
"If things don't improve," said the senior staff, wringing their hands, "we'll have to make other plans." Meaning, of course, "plans that don't involve you having a job". But good teachers, like bonsai, are trained and pruned slowly from seeds and rough soil. What Meryl needed was total backing from her line management and direction in the use of sanctions. "Have you thought about leaving?" said Chloe in her pep talk afterwards like Richard III: smiling, and murdering while she smiles.
How different in Nick's classroom, where the worst he had to contend with was Becky mooning, starry-eyed, at the dishy (they'll have their own word, but dishy will serve) new teacher instead of focussing on figures more abstract, and Zach, a stubborn boy with low ambitions who knew exactly how to achieve them. In a piece of surreality that will rival the entire Dada movement, he decided that what was needed was to take these students on a shooting expedition and suddenly I regretted eating all those brownies my sixth form baked for me. It's unclear what all the well-behaved, hardworking kids thought about Becky and Zach's jolly to bond with Sir, but I'm sure they were all fine with it.
As it turned out Becky wasn't allowed to go because some bureaucrat thought that letting badly-behaved kids loose in the country side with a 12-gauge shotgun was a bad idea, but Zach was, possibly on the grounds that he'd be so bored he'd just fall asleep in the scrub.
But he loved it, and the rookie teacher with a heart of gold bonded with the lost boy over a session whittling ear rings, like a Disney Film. Did it help in the class? Not a bit: Zach the hunt squire and Zach the maths dodger were different roles for different rooms, proving that it doesn't matter how groovy they think you are, if they don't want to work, they won't – and then they stop finding you so groovy. And the teacher has to realise that being a teacher also involves getting kids to work harder than they themselves are comfortable with, because our job is to push them beyond the limits of their own surprise.
Over in Chloe's Geography Cave, the kids were being all right: "Miss, you only come here to visit, and you're not here long," said the kids, explaining to her why their London – muggings, shootings and (most worrying of all) something called gang-bangbangers (I'm scared to even ask) – didn't match her London, although they could as easily have been voicing the fears of many of Teach First's detractors. That wasn't a complaint you could level at Queen Meryl, for whom teaching was both a lifetime ambition and a vocation, at least as long as her "support network" didn't "make other plans".
Don't wipe your bum with a hedgehog
In Mr Wallendahl's class, apathy was rearing its ugly head, had it but the energy for the effort. Caleb, with whom Mr W appears to be destined to grapple with throughout eternity, responded to his revision class with customary grace. "This long," he said.
And what about Mr W, giving up his time so Caleb could do well in his mocks? "That's his job, innit?" he said. Pass me the frying pan. The large one.
A free education, his mother getting a tutor in, free catch-up classes after school…there comes a point with every kid when we can no longer do it for them, nor should we wish to. There comes a point where they need to reach out, however mildly, and grab hold of the lifelines that are dangled before their noses. I feel the tragedy of every Caleb in the world. But the only one who put his head down on the desk and snoozed in the exam was him, bouncing out afterwards, spluttering about the "ridiculous" questions.
Finally, in a already surreal episode, Charles' head of department provided the final piece of a bizarre jigsaw. Tasking him with casting the nativity, he was told to find, "A beautiful Arab Joseph…a light skinned Arab Joseph". She repeated the most important attribute: "A beautiful Joseph". No doubt Charles was thrilled to be sent to the playground and asked to find a beautiful boy who wanted a part in the school show. No wonder he dragged his heels. And when admonished for his failure, he was reprimanded for not being enthusiastic enough. Charles, broheem, I got your back on this.
And finally, the end of term, where nice kids whose names you're not sure of yet give you boxes of chocolates, and teachers make guest appearance in the school play. They all looked frazzled (apart from Nick, fuelled by sunlight and optimism), even Charles, who at one point looked as if he wanted to make Caleb into a mask and wear him to assembly. Team Wigdortz still had some juice in the jar, but it was getting low, apart from Meryl, who isn't so much a glass-half-full-type of teacher as a OH BOY A GLASS!-type. Seeing her top-set English class knock a performance of The Raven out of the park, appeasing the Great Volcano Gods of observation, was brilliant. But that's what top sets are for.
Next week: Nick gives Caleb the keys to his Ferrari as a motivational tool, and The Pheasants observe Meryl.